It’s hard to believe that Tactical RPGs were in a bit of a slump in the west prior to the release of Disgaea. The likes of ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’ had ‘Tactics Ogre’ had set a standard for the genre that was overly-serious and could at times produce lengthy, dry campaigns that required a significant investment in time to beat, even if those games produced great gameplay and narratives. Tactical RPGs were becoming dull and grey in tone. Then Nippon Ichi released Disgaea onto the world and everything changed.
Having worked diligently in Japan producing the popular Marl Kingdom series, which spanned multiple genres and was capped with a fantastic Tactical RPG called ‘La Pucelle Tactics’, Nippon Ichi turned their attention and care-free storytelling style onto the idea of launching an new IP that would really let them concentrate on refining the tactical experience. Dropping their sugar-sweet fantasy princess setting in favour something a little darker in tone, Disgaea would be the launch of a series of games set within a ‘netherworld’, one of multiple versions of hell that placed players in the unusual role of a demon and subsequently the bad guy.
Graphically, Disgaea wasn’t a massive push for the PlayStation 2 to handle. 2D sprites set onto a low-texture 3D background that could be rotated at 90 degree increments and allowed for matches set on square grids. The most notable aspect was that the game jettisoned the battle cutscenes that had been an on/off staple of Tactical RPGs since ‘Shining Force’ and embraced a speed of play that encouraged players to try new tactics rather than cluster together and challenge enemies one at a time or rush the mission goal. A rich cartoon aesthetic adds to the sense of energy the game provides and character designs manage to be both gothic and cute without ever slipping into morbid. The use of geo-panels also allows areas to be brightly lit in different primary colours, adding to the games rich colour palette.
Sound varies in quality, with expertly rendered music giving the game a fantastic sense of character but tracks being repeated too often and sometimes looping after only a short while. These are instantly memorable however and employ some excellent use of vocals to good effect. The chapter titles being the most memorable of these, which end with a chorus of female voices ‘la, la, la’ing the end of the song. Sound effects are sharp and extremely over the top, with even the slightest tap of a mages staff having a considerable ‘crunch’ on impact. These only become more dramatic in scope as the game develops larger attacks until near the games end matches are a cacophony of explosions and slashes. The stand-out element of the games sound design has to be the voice acting placed around the games cutscenes however, which has genuine comedy timing and excellent delivery of what amounts to a frankly mad-cap story.
Disgaea has a narrative structure unlike other games of its time, framed around ‘episodes’ that break the game into chapters and including narration from one of the games characters on what will happen ‘next week’. These are played entirely for comedy and bear no connection to in-game events at all, save for one which is funnier simply because the player has already discounted its happening. The story itself places you in the shoes of a prince of hell who has woken after a long dormant period to find his father has died and the netherworld in chaos. Naturally as the king’s son you believe that the job of running the place should fall to you, and you set about killing anyone who disagrees or gets in your way. Aided by your vassal, Etna and her small army of Prinnies (human souls in penguin form forced to work labour unpaid to make up for their sins) and an angel named Flonne who is initially sent to assassinate you but fails so badly you keep her around, the game eventually sees an invasion mounted on heaven and a misguided pre-emptive attack on hell from the mortal world. Whilst the game is silly in tone it is genuinely funny 90% of the time and actually manages to make moments of genuine emotion stand out all the more prominently because of it.
Aside from featuring the standard Tactical RPG gameplay mechanics of fighting on a square grid the game makes a number of additions to the formula that makes everything feel fresh. Firstly you can lift and throw enemies, allies and objects across the board. This has a number of effects but means that stacking and throwing your characters is a sound tactic for clearing a long distance in a single turn. Additionally the presence of ‘geo panels’ which give whole areas status effects such as upping enemy stats, guaranteeing a counter attack and doubling experience brings a new dimension to puzzle-solving whilst fielding off enemies. These panels can be destroyed to damage anything within their coloured areas and stacked to take out whole ranks of foes, neatly building up a rewards gauge at the same time for better loot after the battle. In addition to the story-related characters (some of whom are optional) the player can create their own from a selection of classes and monsters that unlocks through play and more powerful variants of which are unlocked through their use. These can be apprenticed to a specific character already on your team and to whom bonuses are granted as they develop or when standing in close proximity. The rules of the game can be bent or broken by passing laws in the ‘dark assembly’ and powerful enough characters can even force the vote through a show of force. I say ‘powerful enough’ because the game has a level cap of 9999. If these trimmings aren’t enough to get you excited the game also features a RogueLight option called the Item World that sees you make your way through batches of 10 randomly generated stages in order to increase the stats of any item you can collect in the game. Classes for characters are varied between mages and warrior types with additional middle-ground and specialised classes for those who prefer a certain play style and every move in the game levels with use, making for some intense training sessions that sees a level 1 spell that targets a single square grow into a more powerful action that can hit whole groups. All of this pile on top of a Visual Novel style of storytelling that makes scenes filled with dialogue bounce along quite quickly, and which can be skipped entirely if you want to focus on the game above its story.
Overall, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is a must-play for Tactical RPG fans and it’s availability on the PlayStation 2, remake (Afternoon of Darkness) on the PSP and DS and upcoming Steam release for PC means that it’s easy to get your hands on a copy. Though the sequel produces a tighter plot there’s no beating the series’ first installment in terms of sheer value for money.